The 50 Best Songs of 1953
Welcome to The 50, a Rhapsody scheme in which we attempt to compile the biggest, best, most historically remarkable songs of every year. Our list of 50 tracks -- presented here in no particular order, ideally flowing like a time-traveling DJ set -- has been argued over and (grudgingly) agreed upon by our full editorial staff. Please enjoy.
Has any year in music ever started out on a more bummed-out note than 1953? January 1, mere hours after midnight, Hank Williams — 29 years old, just then charting with a song about how he’d never make it out of the world alive — dies in the backseat of his Cadillac, en route to Canton, Ohio, from Knoxville, Tenn. Countless tribute records ensued (a couple less reverent ones appeared two months later, when Joseph Stalin died). Bill C. Malone, in his definitive history Country Music, U.S.A., also counts Williams’ passing as a death knell for country music’s post-war “boom period.” Within a year, rock ’n’ roll would come along and split the country audience in two, luring teenagers away and forcing the older genre to regroup.
Thing is, in 1953 — as much of this playlist should make crystal clear — rock ’n’ roll was already up and running. And that’s not just because, by midsummer, Elvis had cut a few demo sides and Bill Haley had a hit on the pop chart. A few disc jockeys, most famously Alan Freed in Cleveland, were already programming hot black dance and harmony records to a young, cross-racial audience. And while influences had been bouncing back and forth between hillbilly music and blues for decades, this was some kind of watershed moment. Charlie Gillett’s rock ’n’ roll history The Sound of the City talks about five strains of rock ’n’ roll developing between 1954 and 1956, but it sounds like they’re all already here, in all but name at least: Professor Longhair pounding out New Orleans dance blues; Muddy Waters, Big Joe Turner and jump bluesmen like Louis Jordan and Amos Milburn presaging Chicago rhythm and blues; hillbilly boogie-woogiemen and post-Western swingsters like Merrill Moore, Wade Ray and Hank Thompson, not to mention Memphis R&B cats like Junior Parker and Rufus Thomas (both doing songs in the pre-Elvis lineage), paving the way for Memphis rockabilly; all sorts of proto-doo-wop groups both uptempo (The Drifters, Dominoes, etc.) and balladcentric (The Spaniels, The Harptones, etc.) singing full-on vocal group rock ’n’ roll that still wasn’t too far from The Soul Stirrers’ or The Gospel Harmonettes’ less secular concerns.
In fact, The Orioles’ beautiful country cover “Crying in the Chapel” — later a gospel-toned hit for Elvis — is often considered the first black single of its kind to reach a significant white audience. As for Gillett’s fifth style, northern band rock ’n’ roll, Bill Haley was already scoring with it. Though interestingly, he had to water his sound down some to do so. “Real Rock Drive,” his last 45 before he went pop, rocks wilder than what he later did.
Of course, it’s not like easy Tin Pan Alley listening was over yet, either — especially as far as the album-buying ‘50s adult public was concerned (And in some ways, it never will be.) But change was stirring there, too: swoonsome black crooners like Johnny Ace (who wouldn’t survive 1954) and Nat King Cole, for instance — or Les Paul giving his multitracked electric guitar a Spanish lilt in “Vaya Con Dios” (his No. 1 pop hit with Mary Ford).
Dean Martin, Louis Prima — portraying a cop who busts a bookie named Luigi then takes his place! — Julius LaRosa and Perry Como were swinging rhythms that harked back to old Italy, but swinging nonetheless. For more highbrow or hipster tastes, there was plenty of bebop and cooler jazz out there, not to mention Maria Callas, and even John Cage for the concretely inclined. For the cynics, there’s Harvard-schooled mathematician Tom Lehrer, whose self-released debut 10-inch packed as much hilarious nihilism as any H-bomb Randy Newman or Eminem would ever detonate.
And then there was Marilyn Monroe, proclaiming diamonds a girl’s best friend in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, then posing naked in Playboy’s first centerfold (a mere four months after Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behavior and the American Female). Kinsey’s male report had come out a half-decade prior, though it’s evidently the distaff side that’s addressed in Charlie Aldrich’s hick novelty “Kinsey’s Book.” Which, be forewarned, is probably not even the randiest record in this mix, an honor that might more aptly be bestowed upon Hank Ballard’s “Get It” or, no kidding, The Treniers’ “Poon-Tang!” (“poon is a hug, tang is a kiss” -- riiiiight). Hank Thompson’s “No Help Wanted” (“She’s big at the little and bottom at the top”) and Billy Ward & the Dominoes’ “My Baby’s 3D” (“She’s got it upstairs, she’s got it downstairs, and she’s got it on her balcony”) meanwhile explore the flourishing field of womanly dimensions, while Ruth Brown’s “Wild, Wild Young Men” and Betty Hutton’s “Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad” argue that what’s good for the gander is even better for the goose. Those pre-rock ’n’ roll ‘50s: How pure and innocent!